Brexit is the reason Gurinder Chadha decided to make her latest film, Blinded by the Light.
The writer, director and mum-of-two confides she previously had reservations about the project – which is a coming-of-age story about Javed, a 16-year-old British Pakistani boy growing up during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain – for fears it was too similar to her 2002 hit, Bend It Like Beckham.
But following Britain’s decision to leave the EU back in June 2017, the 59-year-old was “absolutely shocked by the xenophobia that was unleashed”.
“And I got really, really sad about incidences where people felt they could get on buses and abuse elderly black women who’d worked in the NHS for years,” adds the filmmaker, who was born in Kenya to Indian parents, but grew up in London.
“I was like, ‘OK what can I do? Where’s my voice in all this?’ And so, I pulled out the script and then started doing a rewrite, and that’s when I put all my frustration about what I was seeing around me into this script, which, although it’s set in 1987, has a lot of resonance with today.”
Blinded by the Light is inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen; it’s based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, Greetings From Bury Park: Race. Religion. Rock ‘n’ Roll, which tells his own experience of how The Boss changed his life.
In the book, Manzoor - who was two years old when his family emigrated from Pakistan to join his father in Bury Park, Luton – also discusses the battle he faced as a teenager to reconcile being both British and Muslim.
And one way in which Chadha hopes Blinded by the Light has an impact on audiences is by showing the brutal reality of racial tensions at the time (one particularly poignant scene sees a National Front march taking place near Javed’s home).
“I wanted us to remind ourselves of what it was like to see those marches down the street, with people with so much hate in their faces and the ugliness of that, you know?” says Chadha, who’s married to American screenwriter and director Paul Mayeda Berges.
“By making this film, I think it shows young people what we went through and hopefully will educate – as well as entertain – people, to take a stand.”
Not only was Chadha aware of the duty she had in telling Manzoor’s story truthfully, but also dramatically, and there was the question of how to incorporate Springsteen’s music into the film too.
“Once Bruce Springsteen gave us permission to use his music, I was suddenly like, ‘Oh my God, now I’ve got to really live up to that music!’
“This is music I’ve grown up with, songs I knew inside out, and then suddenly I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what is Bruce going to think?’
“So, I had all this anxiety, actually, about Bruce watching the film and me messing about with his songs.”
Chadha was sure of one thing, though, she “never wanted to make a jukebox musical”.
“I made the words cinematic, I hope, and there’s a sequence that I spent ages on, when Javed first hears Bruce, because I knew the film was going to stand or fall by that sequence.”
Chadha’s CV is impressive. Having started her career with BBC Radio as a news reporter, she went on to direct a number of award-winning documentaries for the BBC, before setting up her own production company, Bend It Films, in 2001.
Other examples of her writing include teen comedy Angus, Thongs And Perfect Snogging, drama Viceroy’s House – about the transition of British India to independence – and most recently, ITV drama Beecham House, which followed a former soldier of the East India Company arriving in Delhi in 1800.
How emotional was the process of making Blinded by the Light compared to her previous projects?
“This film, for me, is more visceral in terms of racism than my other work,” she says.
“Shooting scenes like the National Front scene was tough, and anyone who was on my crew, when we shot the first take of that scene, it was really harrowing.
“But we carried on and after two or three takes, what happened was amazing. Basically, all the actors who were playing NF people stopped and said, ‘We can’t do this, we don’t want to do this, we feel horrible doing this’.
“I had to go and give them a big pep talk and tell them how important it is, and how it was critical for the film.
“In many ways, that was a heartwarming moment, because it showed how much progression there’s been. But at the same time, it was very human that everyone was having that response.”
Blinded by the Light is in cinemas now.